You’ve probably seen photographs of the Naked Trump statues by now, hipsters crowded around them laughing at his small penis in selfie shots. You’ve also probably read the sobering pieces pointing out the hypocrisy. I hate to be a buzzkill, but the critics are right. Nobody deserves body shaming, not even assholes like Trump with quite a legacy of shaming others. Upfront, I’ll admit I partook in the fun and tweeted about Trump’s rump. At the time, I thought I was returning what he’s dished out to so many women. Now, I’m less sure what I did was right.
It seems like we can’t go a day without reading about body shaming in the news, or feeling shamed ourselves. Just this morning, I was greeted by an article on MSN about belly fat that made me feel terrible about myself, and I’m not even overweight. That article’s parade of big gut photographs sent me straight into the bathroom to inspect and over-analyze my own body. Articles like this one don’t make us feel good about diet and exercise. They’re likely to stress us out, nothing more.
I’m far from alone, and the anxiety sets in early. The National Eating Disorders Association has compiled a sad list of statistics about our dieting culture. For example, a 2010 study found that 47% of elementary school girls who read magazines say the images make them want to diet more. Studies as recent as 2009 have found that up to 57% of adolescent girls try crash diets, fasting, vomiting, and pills to lose weight. Up to a third of adolescent boys engage in similar practices in order to look thinner.
Gyms have used images of overweight bodies in their ads to boost membership for years, and nonprofits like Strong4Life have publicized images of obese children to shame parents into giving up fast food. People are starting to get sick of it, though. Even Jennifer Anniston and Renee Zellweger have recently published op-eds in The Huffington Post announcing their disgust with the tabloid-fueled gossip in mainstream media about people’s butts, breasts, and nose jobs.
As Glosswitch writes in NewStatesman, public backlash is rising against the constant body shaming that occurs in the media. Public opinion judges women for being too short, too tall, too fat, too skinny, and everything in between. Men face the same stigma. Kevin Bacon sent the Internet into a frenzy last year when he posted a chubby selfie. Turns out, he was pranking everyone. Last week, Hugh Jackman also received tons of attention for looking “gaunt” in a recent photo—it turns out after going 36 hours without water for a movie role. News and social media regularly speculate about baldness in celebrities ranging from Mick Jagger to Hugh Laurie. There’s just no winning. Even when someone undergoes surgery to conform to Western beauty standards, they get shamed.
The stakes have only risen now that everyone owns smart phones and Instagram accounts. As Nancy Jo Sales argues, pressure to look like a fashion model strikes adolescent girls even earlier. Middle schoolers now post provocative selfies every day in order to validate their self-worth through likes and retweets. Given the amount of shaming in our culture, no wonder they’re so hungry for approval. Meanwhile, adolescent boys learn to perform an inauthentic masculinity by sending nudes requests and bragging about their penis size.
My question: Why do so many women continue to subject themselves to others’ gaze, even when they know about the pitfalls of body shaming and objectification? I wanted to experience whatever feeling keeps driving them into camera mode. So I jumped out of my comfort zone a little and posted a few lingerie shots.
Here’s where things get tricky. If I’m skeptical of body shaming and the selfie culture it’s generated, am I just reinforcing that by posting these kinds of pictures? Am I a hypocrite? Arguably, yes.
And yet, I’m not skeptical about showing off a body I’m proud of. I’m also learning that photo-editing tools can be used to enhance pictures without turning girls into twigs. What I’m trying to figure out is a middle stance. The only way to do that is to take the selfie plunge. My actions aren’t that different from the feminist lingerie company Neon Moon, or “average-sized” models like Ali Cutler. Ali makes “average” look pretty damn good.
So, I’ve witnessed firsthand the intoxicating effect of the sexy selfie. I’ll admit, I’ve felt a powerful thrill over the past few weeks watching my likes and retweets climb, not to mention compliments from strangers. It’s like my 20s on steroids. Imagine a night out dancing and getting hit on 12 times, except I can have that feeling all the time. No kidding. I can sit on the toilet at work and read about my “sweet ass.”
The past few weeks have helped me figure out the line. When I started wanting to post more than one selfie a day, that’s when I took a step back: Why had this attention become so important? After all, I have a long term relationship with someone I adore. I have a PhD, a good job, and plenty of publications. And to quote Rebecca Bunch from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, “I have friends. I definitely have friends!” I’ve wondered where this sudden need for validation from strangers—charming as they were—had come from.
Then I remembered my post-structuralist theory, the ultimate truth that we’re all socialized to locate our identities in our image, and in turn how others see us. Some feminists may disagree with me, but I see this fact as inescapable. We can control and moderate our desire for external affirmation. It’s always there, though, and will never completely fade. In other words, the myth of Narcissus exists for a reason—as a caution. There’s a little bit of him in everyone.
Social media has tapped into this part of our nature and nurtured it. Those of us who grew up before Facebook are lucky, in some ways. I’m 30 years old, mature enough to handle these kinds of compliments and fight my urge to become a selfie addict. I’m pretty well versed in feminist theory, and I’ve learned how to become an agent of my own sexuality. I can make conscious, informed decisions about when, where, how, and to whom I share pictures like this.
By contrast, sixteen year-old girls haven’t learned to exercise the same judgment. Their personalities are still growing, and exposure to this kind of attention can damage them—especially in conjunction with body image standards set by mainstream media.
My experience has been positive, even exciting, and I intend to keep it that way. That means occasional photo posting for fun, and not as a substitute for confidence. Getting to this point has taken a lot of work and self-education.
Of course, some people may think body shaming is a myth. I see a lot of men and women on social media arguing that people who complain about shaming are just looking for an excuse to cancel their gym memberships.
If you doubt the ubiquity of body shaming or its effects, then let me tell you about my parents—who shamed me constantly growing up. They photographed me and analyzed my appearance over dinner on a weekly basis. When they thought I was starting to look pudgy at age 8, they put me on a summer diet that involved a raw-vegetables-only lunch. They put a pig in the fridge that oinked at me anytime I even wanted skim milk for my cereal.
My dad lost his temper once at an amusement park. We’d just climbed off a ride and he was talking about lunch. I held my stomach and said I felt like a banana split. He gave me this look of disgust until I clarified. “I meant I’m not that hungry.” His face lightened and he rubbed my shoulders. “That’s okay,” he said.
In sixth grade, I got exercise equipment for Christmas. A thigh master or some knock-off version, some free weights, and some kind of cardio machine that we placed directly in front of the TV.
They also bought me a software program to track my calories and fat intake. The sad part was that I became obsessed with it. I remember one week I logged less than 800 calories a day and felt ridiculously proud of myself. I showed my parents and they laughed. “Don’t get too carried away.”
It turns out that I was never fat. Looking back through old photos, reflecting on my social life, I see now that I was a regular girl the whole time. That explains why my parents eventually did an about face sometime in seventh grade. Instead of telling me to eat less, they offered me second helpings of everything. “We’re worried about you,” my dad said once. “You look too thin.” I didn’t listen. In fact, I was through with their advice. I’d subscribed fully to the standards marketed to me by MTV. I lived in terror that one wrong meal would ruin my concave stomach.
Fitness saved me. In eighth grade, against my parents’ advice, I signed up for track and cross country. After a few days, it became clear I had to eat more. I wasn’t alone. Our cross country coach pulled more than one girl aside and lectured them on caloric intake, protein, healthy fat. I remember one girl who almost fainted during practice. Our coach quizzed her on what she’d eaten that day. Carrots. Crackers. Some celery. He told her how foolish that was and, from that day forward, started teaching us all about nutrition for athletes.
Running gave me new goals: speed, stamina, endurance, power. I took a strength training class and started developing a body that wasn’t just thin but athletic. As long as I focused on that, everything else took care of itself. I genuinely enjoyed my runs, and that love for fitness has stayed with me.
Education and critical awareness can accomplish more than any amount of censorship. As a teacher, my job is to help younger people become critical consumers of knowledge and culture. I want them to understand they don’t need Dr. Oz, green tea extract, or the Protein World to get in shape. Instead of looking to fashion magazines and Hollywood, they should decide their own ideal body and work to maintain that for their own happiness.